It was a dark and stormy night…..okay, it was actually a dark and stormy day at Bran Castle, aka Dracula’s Castle in Romania. As we explored the castle, the thunder pitching across the spiked peaks of the pine trees covering the mountains certainly helped set the mood, which was good because the castle isn’t nearly as scary as you might expect it to be.
All the rooms are covered in fresh white wash that disguises any sins the castle seeks to hide. The furniture that’s displayed is carefully arranged to be easily viewed by the long lines. And people walking around listening to their guides speak kills the ambiance. No slinking through darkened, deserted hallways on this trip. You’d be lucky if you didn’t have thirty people fighting to go up the same small staircase as you.
Minus some swords plastered to the wall and the odd torture device, the castle was actually pretty bland in its serene white shell. So how does that teach you about writing fear?
What I remember is the storm as we left. Rain pelting us. Twisted paths. Unfamiliar roads. No one else around. Streams of water coursing down the uneven stone pathways. Family members getting separated as others ran ahead. Shoes slipping. Dark trees looming high overhead. Water dripping down your face, obscuring your vision. Unending thunder chasing us down.
It’s enough to make any heart beat fast. And it did!
I was already keyed to be scared at the castle because of its history, and the thunderstorm brought that fear to life. So apply that same idea to your story. If you’re writing about a villain, give us a rumor about them, something to set the scene. But then, it’s okay to back away. To make your reader feel safe in those white washed walls before hitting them hard the moment they’re not expecting it, the moment they think they’re free.
Even if the villain’s not there, you can let the setting do the job for you. With the right set up, all you need are key elements- rain and darkness, paranoia and desperation, shadows and sounds, leaving someone behind and being lost. Fear. It comes in many forms. You just have to find the right ones that will set your character off, to make them freeze up in the middle of the rainstorm as others run ahead. Let the storm chase them. Let it chase us, your reader. That’s when your fear will come to life.
I’m reminded of what I once heard about the movie Jaws. Supposedly, the shark kept malfunctioning, and with the film quickly running out of budget and time, the director had to find ways to shoot scenes without the shark. Of course, the scenes still had to be scary. So the director made the water murky and dark, playing on our fear of the unseen. He made music that still haunts us today. All this, in turn, made the shark scary by association. Sometimes it’s not what we see, but the other things we experience that make something scary. Think about that next time you write a scene.
What other books/movies play up fear using just setting alone? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!